Conor here: As this article demonstrates, the costs of personal risk assessments are going to keep going up as climate change intensifies. Not much progress was made in Texas after a winter storm killed 246 people two years ago. The most recent ice storm cut power to 400,000 and fortunately killed only seven, yet still the state is dragging its feet on making needed investments, like burying power lines, in preparation for the next storm. The reason? Why spend public money on something that would help everyone (including the great unwashed) when wealthy Texans can afford to do it themselves:
“Individual customers can also in some cases have the power lines outside their home buried below ground, though they would usually bear the cost of doing so.”
No wonder Texans are losing faith in democracy.
By Pooja Salhotra, Joshua Fechter, Erin Douglas, Jayme Lozano, and Emily Foxhall. Crossposted from Undark.
Two years after a winter storm killed 246 people and left millions of Texans without electricity, Texas cities once again buckled under a menacing winter storm.
Freezing temperatures and ice storms pushed large portions of the state to a standstill last week. Many school districts shut down through at least Thursday as ice made roads and bridges in Dallas and Austin nearly impossible to traverse. Heavy ice brought down power lines all over Austin, prompting widespread power outages in the capital city of the nation’s second-most-populous state. Hundreds of thousands of businesses and households across Central and East Texas remained without power on Thursday as utility crews worked nonstop to repair downed power lines.
Unlike in February 2021 when the state’s electric grid nearly collapsed, last week’s outages were caused by localized issues, such as power lines downed by fallen trees. Still, the weather ultimately caused major disruptions and closures, leaving Texans wondering whether the rapidly growing state is fit to handle extreme weather.
Ice storms are common occurrences in Texas. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist, said that most areas of Texas north of Interstate 10 — or more than half of the state — average at least one day of freezing rain a year. The Texas Panhandle gets around three days of freezing rain per year.
Other extreme weather events, such as short, heavy bouts of precipitation and very hot days, are becoming increasingly common because of climate change.
But much of Texas’ infrastructure was not built to sustain such extreme cold weather. And local governments historically have not prepared for winter weather — in large part due to the costs. However, experts last week said what happened in Texas is fresh evidence that cities and states across the U.S. must rethink how they prepare for all sorts of weather-related emergencies.
Strategies to better prepare cities — large and small — can run the gamut from burying power lines, redeploying emergency response units and keeping trees trimmed, experts told The Texas Tribune.
“When we talk about adaptation, when we talk about resilience, what it means is that day to day, it costs more money to do that,” said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “Now, it saves it in the long run. It saves it both in terms of economic loss as well as lives and livelihoods. But that [cost] is unavoidable.”
But implementing those ideas can be costly, leaving local elected officials presiding over limited budgets to figure out how much to spend — and how to sell the expense to the public.
“You need to analyze how much you’re going to spend on some things that might be [needed on] a rare occasion,” Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said. “You’re not going to want to act like you’re Buffalo, New York. You’re going to want to try to figure out what the possibilities are and what the costs are and then weigh the costs.”
Increasingly, southern cities more accustomed to dealing with extreme heat are figuring out how to deal with extreme cold — while the reverse is true for Northern cities.
The challenge for city and state leaders is to decide how much money to invest in preparing for winter weather that only occurs once or twice a year, on average.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat from Driftwood, whose home had been without power for four hours Thursday morning, floated the idea of using part of the state’s nearly $33 billion surplus on infrastructure to lessen the effects of severe winter storms — like buying more trucks to de-ice freezing roads.
“Maybe we’re only going to pull them out twice a winter,” Zwiener said, referring to the truck idea. “But I think that’s worth it for people to be able to safely reach hospitals, for people to be able to safely move to a place that does have power and for our power crews to be able to reach the lines in a reasonable amount of time they need to repair them.”
Although there is not strong evidence as to how climate change affects ice storms in Texas, climate experts said the storms nonetheless expose weaknesses in the state’s infrastructure.
“One thing [Winter Storm] Uri showed us is how vulnerable we are to any weather event that’s even a little bit outside of our normal operating conditions,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist and the director for the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M. “Just a few degrees outside of that, and things go to hell very quickly.”
A half an inch of ice or more is the technical definition of an ice storm, meteorologists said, but public safety impacts begin well before that. Even a quarter-inch of ice accumulation can cause power lines to go down, and tree limbs weighed down by ice can also fall onto power lines or equipment and result in outages.
Unlike northern cities like Chicago and New York, Texas’ largest cities weren’t built with severe winter weather in mind — and historically have not prioritized preparedness in case of a winter disaster.
“It’s tough to go backward once the infrastructure is already built,” said Dallas assistant emergency management coordinator Travis Houston.
After the 2021 storm, legislators passed a law requiring power companies to “weatherize” their facilities. But power transmission and distribution infrastructure is still not fully equipped to handle extreme weather. Whereas Midwestern and northeastern states tend to bury their power lines below the ground, for example, the majority of the state’s power lines are above ground and therefore susceptible to falling tree limbs.
At least one Austin City Council member already called on the city to bury its power lines.
Doing so would be very expensive, Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference — likely costing billions of dollars. It’s easier to bury power lines in new developments but is costly and difficult in existing neighborhoods. Burying power lines also makes it more difficult to maintain them and pinpoint a break in the line, Sargent said.
Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said burying power lines underground would be more reliable and may be worth the cost in the long run.
“We’re cheap,” Webber said. “And it’s very expensive to be cheap.”
Oncor, Texas’ largest transmission and distribution electric company, does have some underground power lines in downtown areas, according to company spokesperson Kerri Dunn. Individual customers can also in some cases have the power lines outside their home buried below ground, though they would usually bear the cost of doing so.
In addition to being more expensive, burying power lines also makes it more challenging to conduct repairs.
“When you do have an outage, we can look up at the sky and see if there’s something wrong with our equipment,” Dunn said. “When you’re going underground, you’re having to get folks underground into harder-to-reach areas.”
Despite the potential cost, Watson said Austin shouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea — and should consider it as part of a broader review of how to prepare Austin for future winter storms.
“I think the public deserves that to be looked at in a thoughtful way,” Watson said.
One of the factors that contributed to Austin’s blackout this week: trees.
Live oaks, ashe junipers, and cedar elms alike cracked under the pressure of ice, taking the power lines down with their branches.
“Having a rigorous and ongoing tree-trimming effort to continually keep up with — they call it vegetation management — is a key contributor to providing highly reliable electricity service,” said Beth Garza, senior fellow with R Street Institute and an energy expert.
Power utility companies have plans to manage trees and other plants near power lines. But in some cases, the public protests the tree maintenance done by utilities. During a press conference Thursday, Austin Energy officials asked residents to be more cooperative when they come to prune.
“We want to be respectful of the trees and the value they bring to our communities,” Dunn said. “But it’s still very important for us to make sure we’re performing that trimming from a safety standpoint. So it’s a careful balance that we have to do.”
Some of Texas’ smaller cities — including Amarillo, which sees much cooler weather than the rest of the state — have found ways to better prepare for weather emergencies.
“Whether it destroys the power grid because of the lines down, or if you’re unable to get emergency vehicles through places, ice storms are just the bane of any city’s existence,” said Paul Harpole, a former mayor of Amarillo.
The city has worked for years on disaster preparedness. Amarillo increased the number of emergency weather sirens, retrofitted dump trucks to clear snow, and can now create emergency shelters at its civic center, which can be set up with showers, food, and medical supplies for a makeshift shelter overnight if need be.
Additionally, several firehouses have been repositioned in Amarillo to cover more areas.
In East Texas, where freezing temperatures are less common, disaster preparedness is often conducted regionally. The East Texas Council of Governments, which serves 14 counties, has an alert notification system funded by the state. The council’s public safety director, Stephanie Heffner, also attends weekly phone calls with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to keep up to date on impending weather issues.
After the 2021 freeze, some smaller cities within East Texas worked with the council to learn how to better equip themselves for extreme weather, including by preparing their generators and scheduling preparedness exercises for first responders.
“We send lots of notifications throughout the region so that folks know that no matter what comes up, they can call us,” Heffner said. “Even if we are not the right department, we will point them in the right direction.”
Other parts of the state showed fewer signs of the struggles that vexed them two years ago.
The Dallas-Fort Worth region had relatively few power outages compared with Austin and generally fared better than Austin — in part because of luck in weather patterns, said Houston, the Dallas emergency official.
Dallas was prepared for the worst, Houston said. In February 2021, sweeping power outages knocked out the power at city facilities like libraries and recreation centers that had been set up as warming centers. This time, the city had backup generators ready to go at recreational centers that had been set up as warming centers in advance.
And while the lights mostly stayed on through North Dallas, emergency workers responded to hundreds of car crashes as drivers navigated icy roads. Social media captured dozens of cars trapped or sliding across highways and overpasses. Adam Hammonds, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson, said the agency in recent years has bolstered its stores of brine and salt to treat roadways in order to have enough to cover longer winter storms.
And after several days closed, Dallas Independent School District students returned with a delayed start time Friday. Fort Worth Independent School District students, however, stayed home after district officials decided to remain closed.
“It is jarring when you take a step back and look at a system and economy — not even just the city of Dallas, but just North Texas and the [Dallas-Fort Worth] metroplex as a whole — that something like this can send everything kind of grinding to a halt,” Houston said.
You know, it’s like these winter storms that happen every few years are happening a lot more often. Former resident of the DFW metro, Dallas and Plano, less than surprising to see nothing changes. A snow blizzard hit in the winter during 2011, famously causing all manner of logistic issues for hosting the Super Bowl between GB and Pittsburgh. One felt welcome to plow their own darn roads. Oh and elevated roads and toll ways is a pending disaster in ice.
Just not equipped for it, and they seem less than hurried about putting plans into action in the short run or the long haul. That is Texas for you in a nutshell. Everyone not rich enough to bury their own lines or trim their own tree limbs just might have to deal with nature.
Mother Nature did some tree trimming last week. It would take many years of tree growth for a similar ice storm to have the same effect. Too bad she didn’t take out all of the Arizona Ash trees in town.
“Individual customers can also in some cases have the power lines outside their home buried below ground, though they would usually bear the cost of doing so.”
Boy, I don’t get this at all. How would burying just your own power lines protect you? Am I asking a really dumb question?
When some friends and I build a “vacation house in NH 40 some years ago, we had the power and phone lines buried so if there was a power outage it would not be only our house and with no one around might get fixed faster.
A lot of the main lines are on steel poles and higher up and further from big trees. The lines that go down individual streets are closer to the trees and then the lines that go from the poles to the house are even closer to all the trees. On Wednesday and Thursday during the storm everyone was talking about going outside and listening to all the trees breaking and falling all over the place. So I could see how burying your own lines could make a big difference. especially if you are rich and have a lot of property will a lot of trees. The closer the lines get to individual houses, the closer they are to the trees that can take them down.
Burying the cables that go to your individual house prevents them from getting torn down when a storm knocks down a tree in your back yard. I’ve seen service access panels torn off the back of houses when this happens. It can make for a costly repair, and since the issue only affects one house, it’ll be bottom priority for the power company in the aftermath of a large storm.
It’s obviously not a hard guarantee that you’ll never have a power outage, as the power lines that feed the transformer from which your house draws power can still get torn down, but it does reduce the odds.
Distribution circuits are lower voltage and usually lateral and are not a networked grid. They deliver electricity to residential and commercial customers. Starting in the 1970s many of these lines were put underground for esthetic and reliability reasons. Urban centers most often have underground networks. However most distribution remains overhead.
One can pay to put your electric and cable underground, again generally as an esthetic choice. You assume costs with failure of the underground cables. If it remains overhead the utility assumes the cost of repairs up to the weather head on your house.
The notion that “everything” can be placed underground ignores the reality of the monumental cost of such an undertaking. Underground circuits cost multiples of overhead lines. For high voltage transmission those costs are many muktiples of overhead lines. Ultimately, who is going to pay? Any upgraded infrastructure capital expense is put into the delivery rate base. There are guaranteed returns of 11% or more. Look at your electric bill delivery charge; are you willing to see that rise 4x?
Now put the notion of “bury everything, everywhere” into the equally fanciful all-electric zero carbon future… demand will grow 30-50%, requiring trillions of investment. Who is going to pay? How is it going to be paid?
Lastly, ice storms are rare. Ice accumulates asymmetrically on structures and wires. One can design lines for 1cm of ice, but more than that costs exponentially increase. The 1998 Montreal ice storm lasted for a week and there was 10cm of asymmetric ice. 735 kv towers crumpled and distribution was ruined. Mother nature rules.
Duke Energy is in the process of burying lines in my early 20th century neighborhood (with lots of trees) and it is the opposite of that here. Home owners were told that the installation would be free, but if they refused to sign up then their house line would be left overhead and the repair cost, if downed, on them.
And so they have put up all new poles down one main street and the house lines are distributed from these to transformers on the ground in green boxes. The older poles are cut short and left in place for the telephone and cable lines. That way if a tree falls on them it probably won’t take out the electricity.
The installation process has been quite labor and time consuming so i’m sure they would not be doing this unless it saved Duke lots of money on repairs. Plus the transformers will now be on the ground and presumably even easier to service than before.
When the whole town does it. Palos Hills Illinois did something right!
I woke up at 5AM that Wednesday and at 5:30 I was looking out the front window. The super intense, prison yard style lights that a local business has installed due to the meth camps surrounding this area were lighting up the icy scene quite beautifully. I thought to myself how I should go turn the heat up to 80 since the power would surely go out soon. Then an orange glow lit up the foggy sky for a second and the power went out. Then it came back on, the orange glow returned for a second, and it went back off again. This happened about 4 times before whatever safety measure kicked in and it stopped trying to come back on. About 60 hours later the power came back on. Never got below 53 inside the house, 2 years ago it went down to 45 at one point. I have a USB TV tuner that I was able to use to watch TV on my laptop with so I could watch the local news people drill the city about why the outage map on line was not up to date. I know someone at Austin Energy and heard that the first 2 days they were busy knocking ice off of infrastructure so they could keep the lights on at the hospitals. The poor mayor just got elected and the previous guy left the city in a shambles. For the first time ever I have sympathy for the leadership of Austin. Would have been great to be better prepared but it seems like a lot of people here are more pissed off about the outage map not being up to date than anything else. It was a surreal experience. One of the most interesting things for me was seeing all of the people who make their home under the highways and at the bus stops and anywhere else they can find. There was actually a plan to get as many as possible into warming shelters this year instead of 2021 when everyone was literally left out in the cold to die, and this was when we got to see in plain site the very large portion of people who choose to live out on the street even in an ice storm rather than accept services.
I’d guess its likely that gun ownership is much more common in Texas than other places, and much of the demand is unbased fear of things that will never happen, but lookie here in that over the course of a dozen years, the real fear was being without electricity-not a bad guy with a gun.
The Loan Star (i’ve never seen more pawn shops than in Texas) state isn’t going to fix anything for its citizens, so…
A gun, holster & ample amount of ammo would set you back around $666, here’s what you could have spent it on instead:
7×7 gallon water containers, to keep about 50 gallons on hand
1x Coleman 2 burner stove & 10x 1 pound propane canisters
2x hot water bottles
20x Freeze dried meals & coffee, lots of coffee.
2x headlamps (much more useful than flashlights, as you’re hands free)
1x multi-band am/fm weather radio dual battery/hand crank powered
1/2 cord of firewood
1x box of 300 matches
And don’t forget to buy a moisture-proof metal box in which to store the matches! 300 damp matches are pretty useless. I speak from experience.
In Chautauqua County, NY, we cultivate good relations with our Amish neighbors, who live happily ‘off the grid.’ We joke with one Amish friend, a single woman, that, come the ‘hard times,’ we are moving into her kitchen, with its enormous shiny wood-burning range.
Although, when in Seattle, we are on our own, with a cache of of canned tuna, beans and condensed milk in the hall closet, and lots of wool clothing. Fortunately, our son and spouse, who live a few blocks up the hill, are backpackers.
We don’t do infrastructure and maintenance. It’s no fun and we don’t want to spend the money to solve these longstanding issues in some areas and emerging issues in others. Western Washington, at least on the toney island I lived off Seattle for 20 years, desperately needed buried utilities. Power outages were common when the wind just blew. Despite years of activism for utilities and central sewage systems, development proceeded apace, ignoring salt water incursion, degradation of wetlands, hardscaping, traffic, etc. No one wanted to take buried utilities seriously. No money in it. As long as you had a mansion with room for a generator, all was well. And that was in the aughts…
There’s an aspect to burying cables that the article fails to discuss: What voltage do the cables carry? This is very important, as it has tremendous impact on the cost and feasibility of burying said cables. There are three major categories:
Low-voltage: This is the 240-volt (with center tap) single-phase power that is distributed to individual homes or 480-volt three-phase power that is sometimes distributed to business. The cables here are of simple construction (conductors protected by “burial-grade” insulation), which means that they’re fairly skinny and have small minimum-bend-radius requirements, which means that they’re easy to bury even when the terrain is non-flat and you have to make turns around obstacles. They’re also fairly easy to repair once unburied.
Medium-voltage: This is the 13.5-kilovolt power used in “distribution lines”. It’s normally carried in open-air cables that are mounted on the hemispherical ceramic insulations seen on top of telephone poles. Most “neighborhood-scale” power outages involve breaks to distribution lines.
Burying these requires the use of special medium-voltage cable that is of fairly complex construction. You have larger conductors surrounded by a thick layer of insulation, a conductive shield layer, a second thin layer of insulation, an “armor” layer made of steel, and a final “jacket” that protects the steel from the elements. This cable is significantly more expensive than burial-grade low-voltage cable, and the large minimum-bend-radius requirement makes them more difficult to route and bury. Repairs are significantly more difficult (as all of the layers must be addressed) and would be truly awful in bad weather.
High-voltage: This are the 115+ kilovolt “transmission” lines that are carried by large steel towers. Failure to a high-voltage cable can black out a good chunk of a city, but because they’re carried so high in the air, such failures are rather rare.
Burying these requires highly-specialized high-voltage cable that is of highly complex construction. Like medium voltage cables, they are built of up many layers, except now that these layers are much thicker and involve special semi-conducting materials that are used to manage voltage gradients more carefully. They have very large bend-radius minimums that make burial very difficult, and doing repairs in the field is essentially impossible. I’m only aware of a few places on the planet where high-voltage cables have been buried. It’s really hard to do.
My own neighborhood has buried 240-volt cables (done way back in the 1980s), and I’ve never witnessed a low-voltage cable failure here despite trees falling with alarming regularity. Those same falling trees have snagged the nearby 13500-volt distribution line several times, though, which is where our blackouts come from. I’ve never seen a high-voltage cable failure, though occasionally I read about them on the news, where somebody crashes a hot-air balloon or small airplane into them.
So in short, if politicians proposes burying power cables, one must ask this: Which ones? If they say, “240-volt lines going to houses”, give them a big thumbs-up. If they say, “13.5-kV distribution lines”, you must then ask if they’ve actually run the cost numbers on this proposal to see if it’s sane. And if they say, “high-voltage transmission lines”, you’ll know immediately that they are idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with energy infrastructure issues. And if they don’t understand the question, then they’re ignorant and shouldn’t be trusted with energy infrastructure issues.
What an excellent & informative comment. Thanks, GE!
In Minnesota we do build for the extremes, at a cost.
Most County Roads are built above the surrounding landscape to aid winter plowing, and minimize flooding, but given the new weather events that is still not a guarantee. There is not an easy way to prepare 12 inches of rain in a couple hours.
A lot of electricity is still delivered overhead, and outages are avoided with money invested in constant tree trimming. This requires budgets to keep maintenance people prowling the neighborhoods. Our utilities are regulated.
While southerners scoff at the high cost of living in this “socialist” state, we cherish our state snow plow drivers and even have contests in naming our state plows.
I live in Austin and our municipal electricity provider sure does have a mania for raising rates without increasing the quality of the service. Not only did I lose power during the coldest days, but I lost power afterwards when a transformer on our street exploded.